BY JOSH SOLOMON
“Never go to France unless you know the lingo,” wrote the English poet Thomas Hood in 1839. A half-century earlier, the French writer Antoine de Rivarol claimed that “[w]hat is not clear is not French.” If speaking of French wine, Hood could not have been more right, nor Rivarol more wrong.
France, the spiritual, if not literal homeland of wine, remains tragically beyond the reach of many American wine drinkers. Indeed, when I first began drinking wine, I simply steered clear of all things French. It was just too complicated and daunting. Then one day I found myself unknowingly complicit in the opening and subsequent wasting (read: dumping out) of a very good, very expensive Bordeaux. Realizing that my continued ignorance threatened more of his fine bottles, the owner of that Château Ausone bought me a book. That little primer took away the mystery and introduced me to the unendingly interesting monde de vin français.
Trying to introduce French wine in the 700 or so words remaining is, of course, a ridiculous undertaking — as likely to confuse, say, as assigning Pennoyer v. Neff as the very first case of 1L fall. But we all survived that. Hopefully, in the long run, this topic will rival the excitement I know you feel for personal jurisdiction.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about French wine is that, with very few exceptions, it takes the name of its region or town: Bordeaux, Burgundy and Sancerre are places, not grapes. This is quite different from American wines, which are usually named for the grape or grapes that predominate. So while we drink American chardonnay, we drink French chablis, though both come from the same grape.
Thus, a good first step for one accustomed to American labels is to learn which grapes correspond to which regions. Here’s a basic primer covering the four kings among the French regions (grapes are in bold):
Bordeaux: If there were kahunas in France, this would be the big one: Bordeaux is perhaps the most prestigious of all French wine. Most of it is red, made primarily from cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Red bordeaux tends to be strong, tannic and firm, and will develop complex flavors with age that defy generalization. Bordeaux’s white wines come primarily from sémillon and sauvignon blanc and include the wonderful dessert wines from Sauternes.
Burgundy: The Burgundy labeling system is extremely complicated and impossible to capture concisely. A few major points are worth noting. To the north is Chablis, from which come wonderful whites, all chardonnay. White Burgundies from elsewhere in the region likewise come mostly from chardonnay grapes. White burgundy, and chablis in particular, tends to be drier, more earthy, and less buttery than American chardonnay. As for reds, most burgundy is made from pinot noir, which makes light-to-medium bodied, somewhat fruity wines.
Rhone: Whereas burgundy baffles with its intricate village naming system, the Rhone confuses with the plethora of grapes that grow there. The vast majority of rhones are red. The reds from the north come from syrah. This dark grape produces full-bodied, tannic wines, that often have a wild feel to them. They are often spicy, and with age can be meaty in taste and feel. White wines from the north come from marsanne, rousanne and viognier grapes. In the south, things get more complicated. The production is almost entirely red. The featured grapes among the many grown there are grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, but many more are often blended in. Unless you get to know a particular maker well, you will often not know for sure exactly which grapes, and in which proportions, produced what you are drinking.
Champagne: You’ve heard of it, and you’ve probably had it on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, you may also have had something else fizzy that someone called champagne. All champagne, properly named, comes from Champagne, France. Champagne usually contains chardonnay and (surprising given its usual white color) two red grapes: pinot noir and pinot meunier. You will often see bottles without years (or labeled “NV”), as most champagne is “non-vintage” — a blend of grapes from several years. Beyond not calling anything champagne that isn’t, the most important thing to know about champagne is that it should not be reserved only for celebrations. Champagne makes for the perfect aperitif and even goes well with many dishes. Drink it liberally.
It is, I must admit, somewhat embarrassing to stop here. French wine has so much to offer, and this is necessarily just the barest-bones of an intro. Go forth and explore!
Here are my tasting notes for the week (all prices are from Martignetti’s):
NV Deutz Brut Classic Champagne ($29.99) — Wonderful! It had an earthy, wet-leaves aroma. It was also quite yeasty in smell, and even more so in taste; sweeter than expected, with a chewy mouth feel. Highly recommended!
2000 Domaine Mas du Bouquet Vacqueyras ($10.99) — Not wonderful. Vacqueyras is a small village in the southern Rhone. Like much of the wine from that region, Vacqueyras is a blend of various grapes. Fifty percent, however, must be grenache. This wine had a deep purple color, with an earthy nose that included meat and berries. The nose was more interesting than its taste, which was acidic, tannic, and slightly bitter. In fact, there was not much interesting to its taste — not all that surprising, as my experience is that very young Rhones tend to underwhelm.
1997 Grossot Chablis ($12.99) — The color struck me first: a beautiful golden, almost yellow, hue. It came with a huge buttery aroma. In the mouth, it was quite dry, with flavors of butter and undertones of apple. Because of the color and noticeable buttery taste and smell, this chablis (again, 100 percent chardonnay) will not strike you as being as different from California chardonnays as are many white burgundies. On the whole, a decent choice given its low-for-Chablis price.